France – Conscripts

SOME time since I was leaving a country house near Troyes, in Champagne, when my hostess observed,

” I should have insisted on keeping you longer, but for the next twenty-eight days we shall be without coach-man and butler, both having to serve in the manoeuvres.” With a smile she added, ” The pair travel to Dijon by the same train as yourself, and a substitute will drive us to the station, a man formerly in our employ. I was much amused just now by his request that he might retain his moustaches ; he should not like, he said, to have to take them off. Naturally, I humoured him.”

It may seem odd that sumptuary laws should exist in a republic. So it is, and, as I shall show elsewhere, in many respects our neighbours are far more aristocratic than ourselves.

I was awaited by a friend at Dijon, so, finding that they could be of no use to me, the two middle-aged conscripts took leave, looking anything but elate. Both were married men, fathers of families, and occupying places of trust. This recurring interference with daily life, the indescribable fatigues and discomforts of manoeuvres under a burning August sun, the physical and mental risks daily involved, might well sober their usually cheerful countenances. How many a man in his prime and in splendid health sets off for his vingt-huit jours never to return alive ! Sunstroke, dysentery, accidents, excessive fatigue, exact an annual toll. From his majority until the attainment of his forty-fifth year, a Frenchman is subject to this quadrennial ordeal.

No one, indeed, who has not lived in France and among French people can have the faintest idea of what conscription really means alike to the individual, the family, and the home. Nor do we here fully realize the import of that fell term ” armed peace.” It may not be generally known that the high-stepper of the rich and the cart-horse of the poor in France are only up to a certain point the property of their owners. Every year possessors of horses have to furnish the Ministry of War with a list of their animals, one and all being liable to requisition in case of war. Indemnification would be made, but what payment could compensate for the loss of much-prized favourites ? Chevaline conscription was regulated by laws of July, 1873, and of August, 1874. Mules and vehicles are also in this sense subject to the State.

As I shall show further on, even under the modified military code of the Third Republic, the blood-tax falls heaviest on those least able to bear it–namely, on the artisan, the peasant farmer, and the labouring man. Young men able to pass certain examinations are let off with one year’s service, the result being that a very small proportion indeed of the better-off ranks spend three years in barracks. But what twelve months of compulsory soldiering is like, in many cases hardships being mitigated by easy circumstances, the following pages will make clear.

From the day of enrolment to that of his discharge the conscript finds himself a prisoner, the conviction being first brought home to him by the matter of clothes. The enormous army stores, thousands—nay, tens, hundreds, thousands of thousands of képis, tunics, trousers, boots, warehoused in every garrison town are resorted to with due parsimony. In every department of military administration the rule is one of strictest, the most rigid thrift.

Thus on entering the barracks a conscript is not rigged out with a new uniform. He is often obliged to take a predecessor’s leavings, pantaloons not being so much as relined for the next wearer. Hence the excessive supervision of dress, the punishments inflicted for grease-stains, a rent, or the loss of a button !

Next to the discomfort of ill-fitting, unsuitable, possibly left-off clothes, is that of sleeping accommodation. Imagine the first night in barracks of a youth not luxuriously but comfortably, or we will say decently, brought up. He shares a huge, bare dormitory with fifty or more conscripts severally belonging to the lowest as well as the most favoured ranks of society. The pallet next his own may be occupied by one of the unclassed, some rowdy or vagabond, on the other side he may have a hard-working but coarse-mannered countryman. Absolute cleanliness is next to impossible in these military caravansaries ; in winter the men suffer from cold, in summer from heat, flies, fleas, and worse nuisances. Intense fatigue will at times fail to induce sleep under such circumstances.

Next comes the question of diet. Such minute attention is paid to cookery by all classes in France that here, perhaps, the artisan and the peasant suffer hardly less than the dandy. ” A soldier can eat anything,” once observed a gentleman-conscript to me. What he meant to say was, not that he could always relish barrack fare, but that he could satisfy his hunger with the first dish put in his way. The gamelle, or mess partaken of after the manner of the loving-cup, was abolished some years since ; each man now has a plate or bowl to himself. It is the monotony that tries the healthiest appetite, a perpetual round of stewed meat and vegetables, no wine being allowed except during the manoeuvres.

But the crowning privation is that of liberty. Unseemly clothes, crowded, malodorous, noisy sleeping-quarters, ragoût washed down with water from January to December, are bagatelles compared to the sense of moral degradation, the fact of being reduced to an automaton. Let me here give a conscript’s own views on the subject, the speaker, as I shall show later, having enjoyed many alleviations.

” Well,” I began, ” my dear Emile “—I had known my informant from a boy—” now that your garrison experiences are over, tell me what you think of conscription. And what I should much like to know is this : was the probation harder or more bearable than you had been led to expect ? ”

” Harder, much harder,” was the unhesitating reply. ” No one except those who have gone through it have the remotest idea of what conscription is like. As I had passed certain examinations entitling me to a remission of two of the three years’ obligatory service, and as I had money at my disposal, I consider myself exceptionally favoured. For all that, barrack life to a civilian is a hideous nightmare. There is no other name for it. You feel as if you were shut up in prison to the end of your days. Many young men cannot stand the confinement and run away. This is a desperate step. If they succeed in crossing the frontier, they remain outlaws till they have passed their forty-fifth year. If they are caught or return voluntarily, they are most probably drafted into what is called the regiment of intractables, and despatched to Algeria. The treatment they are there subjected to is very severe. You see, commanding officers are apt to become hard and unsympathetic in spite of their better nature. In the German army matters are much worse ; here they are bad enough, goodness knows.”

” Then your experience is that conscription does not tend to make young men more patriotic, nor to imbue them with the military spirit ? ”

” Patriotic, indeed ! ” he replied ; ” instead, conscription turns them into Socialists and Anarchists. The German army, as you know, reeks with Socialism, and there is plenty of it in our own. As to enforced military service inclining men to soldiering, on the contrary it makes them loathe it. I, for one, am all for disarmament and arbitration. Nothing on earth, for instance, would ever induce me to witness a review. Outsiders have no notion of the sufferings thereby entailed on the men.”

” Anyhow, Emile, you must have learned a good deal during the past twelve months ? ” I asked.

My young friend’s answer was of the briefest. I should here explain that he was no sybarite or victim of too soft bringing-up. An accomplished horseman, an excellent shot, a skilled fencer, accustomed to the life of a country gentleman, in his case the elementary training of a soldier would be child’s play, and physical hardships would be borne philosophically. Yet it seemed strange that these experiences should have begun and ended with repugnance only, nothing being left to recall with satisfaction. What he had really found intolerable was the loss of individuality, the derogation of manhood, the extinguisher put upon all that makes life inspiriting and elevating. And again Emile reverted to the deterioration of character brought about by militarism.

” Of course we are not cuffed, buffeted, and kicked as in Germany no French officer is allowed to touch a man ; nevertheless, conscription as a system is both brutalizing and demoralizing.” Then, he added, as we strolled along the Champs Elysées on the day following his discharge, “Am I really free ? Have I shaken off the fell dream ?

I do not yet feel quite sure.”

On the subject of promiscuity my young friend spoke with less bitterness.

” Poor fellows ! ” he said, alluding to the impecunious of his brothers-in-arms. ” How grateful they were when able to earn a few francs by brushing my clothes or rendering any other little service ! And one night in winter when I had a bad fit of coughing, my nearest neighbour, a Breton peasant lad, took the warm rug from his own bed, and without a word put it on my own. These things one never forgets?’

Not all conscripts regard their probation in the same light. Young men of refined tastes naturally resent many things that would not shock a herdsman or carter. The cavalry regiment has often a fascination for city-bred youths, whose only experience of horsemanship has, perhaps, been a turn on the merry-go-round. And many a stripling comes out of the ordeal sturdier, more of a man, than when he first shouldered a gun. But of all the conscripts I have known, and several I have known very intimately indeed, not one ever expressed any enthusiasm for the system, or regarded barrack life as a school of patriotism.

Here a few words on the existing laws relating to conscription will not be inopportune. Irrespective of financial and material considerations, a modification is imperatively called for by conscientious reasons. Two years’ service obligatory on one and all will remove a grave injustice. As I have pointed out, under existing rules, whilst the artisan, the peasant, and the day labourer give three best years of their lives to their country, the wealthy and professional classes get off with one, certain commercial and literary examinations procuring the deduction. With the rural and trading-classes such a privilege is unattainable ; hence, whilst young men compelled to work for a livelihood, and ofttimes the mainstay of a family, lose three years, those who could best afford such an interference with their avocations sacrifice one only. Never by any chance do you hear of a young gentleman serving the entire term. A more equable, more democratic measure is necessary to the very existence of the Republic.

“Examinations have even been made easier,” writes M. Demolins (A-t-on intérêt à s’emparer du pouvoir), “in order that a greater number of students may obtain the two years’ remission.” Examiners have sons, and the paternal prevails over the military school. In appearance the military regulations of 1889 were framed on strictly democratic principles. As a friend wrote to me in 189o, himself being an officer retired on half-pay, “To sum up, the new law is as democratic as possible ; the principle of equality has been guaranteed.” Had this good friend lived a few years longer he would have seen but too good reason to change his opinion.

Until 1872 the organization of the French army was in accordance with that of 1832. Lots were drawn yearly, the highest number entitling the drawer to total exemption, the lowest to seven years’ service. Certain exceptions were made in the case of only sons of widows, seminarists, professors, and teachers pledged to ten years’ public service, and others. In all cases, total exemption could be purchased, the agents transacting such substitutions being called marchands d’hommes (” dealers in men “). After the reverses of 1870-71 military organization in France was reconstructed upon the Prussian system. Every French-man, with very few exceptions, then became a soldier, his obligation being that of five years’ service and liability to being called up during fifteen years further in case of war. Exemption was still accorded in times of peace to elder or only sons of widows, seminarists, and Protestant theological students. Young men having passed certain examinations could purchase a four years’ remission on payment of two thousand five hundred francs. These so-called voluntaires d’un an formed a special class ; they might, indeed, be called the spoiled children of the army. They were subject to a modified treatment in barracks, which provoked jealousy and the necessity for further reforms.

The law of I889 introduced, if not absolute, what at that time seemed the nearest approach possible to absolute equality. Every French citizen was now nominally liable to three years’ service, and to be called up for exercise or during war until his forty-fifth year. No payment under any circumstances whatever can secure a substitute, the exceptions being as follows young men under an engagement to serve ten years in educational or philanthropic institutions either in France or the colonies, students who have passed the higher examinations in art, science, or letters, who have received diplomas in national schools of agriculture and in technical schools, or who are preparing for the Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish ministry ; lastly, a certain number of artisans selected by a jury of their respective departments, engravers, modellers, decorators, etc, In all these cases the three years’ service is reduced to one.

Thus it will be seen that the new law—namely, an obligation of two years’ service on all citizens of age indiscriminately, is not only a matter of financial economy, it is a rectification of very grave abuses.

There are also other and very grave reasons for a change. It is found that the long term of three years’ withdrawal from rural life and sojourn in towns is a great factor in the depopulation of agricultural regions. Young countrymen, whether peasants or belonging to the middle classes, once this term of service is expired, have no desire to return to village life, hence the excessive competition for the humblest administrative posts and the dearth of hands for farm labour. A recent writer in the Revue des deux. Mondes (December, 1904) puts this point very forcibly.